Why School Accreditation?

Schools of Conscience is developing a school accreditation model, but you may be wondering why. 

The field is dominated by established firms and may seem like a difficult one to break into.

I explain what accreditation is and the reasoning behind this seemingly quixotic pursuit below.

1. What is school accreditation?

School accreditation is the process by which a school is recognized by a third party organization (usually an association of like-minded schools) for accomplishing goals that it both implicitly and explicitly promises to accomplish.

All schools implicitly promise to be sustainable institutions and to provide an environment that is safe for the children they serve.

Accreditation systems should be able to assist parents and other societal stakeholders in education to assess whether a given school is living up to the important promises that the school represents in the lives of children and their families.

Some schools promise to produce academic outcomes such as grades, test scores, graduation rates, and college entrance rates.

Other schools reject some or all of these academic measures as valid measures of the value they provide to the children they serve.

An accreditation system that inherently defers to academics cannot serve the needs of stakeholders whose interest is in schools that reject academics as central measures of their value as a school. 

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2. Why is Schools of Conscience pursuing the development of a school accreditation model?

I, Don Berg the founder of Schools of Conscience, have long been a part of both the democratic school and the homeschool movements.

I understand from conversations with leaders in the democratic school movement (such as Scott Nine, former head of IDEA) that there has been periodic lamentation of the fact that all the existing mainstream accreditation systems fail to recognize important non-academic features of democratic and other types of holistic schools and that they tend to effectively (though not explicitly) impose inappropriate expectations upon them.

One attempt at an alternative accreditation model was intended to accommodate all the diverse needs of the various schools, but was inadequate since some of its “accredited” schools were deemed “diploma mills” by the US department of Education, meaning that the diplomas they issued would not be recognized as valid by colleges and universities.

Knowledgeable insiders confided in me that that particular accreditation model appeared to them to be an effort to address the marketing advantage of being accredited, without providing the necessary substance. 

In the process of completing my thesis research studying two distinctly different private alternative schools in Oregon,

I noticed that there were two nearby charter schools that closely paralleled those in his study.

Both matched pairs of schools were founded within a few years of each other with similar philosophies and operational characteristics and all had close to a decade of successful operations behind them.

The differences between the matched pairs that have emerged would appear to be primarily due to the private/public choices that they each made at critical moments in their histories.

In one set of matched pairs both had been publicly funded alternative schools within their respective districts, but after a few years the districts were pressuring them to alter key characteristics of their models.

One chose to become private while the other chose to become a charter. In both sets of matched pairs the charter schools have been forced to compromise.

Charters, at least in Oregon, currently do not have the freedom to operate in accordance with the kinds of philosophies that make holistic alternatives unique.

To be honest, it is still technically an open question whether those particular compromises have diminished their ability to nurture the children in their care, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they have been compromised in this regard.

In any case, these specific examples make it clear that developing a third party method of evaluating these schools in a manner that honors their unique character would provide the evidence needed to answer these questions. 

It is in the context of these two perceived gaps, in school needs and objective data, that I believe there is an important opportunity that can be uniquely served by Schools of Conscience.

As an independent scholar, I have been focused for decades on the question of how to ground holistic education in an appropriate framework that draws on the scientific evidence in the emerging fields of complex adaptive systems, cognitive psychology, and ecological sustainability. 

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3. What value would a holistic school accreditation model add to K-12 education more broadly? 

A holistic accreditation model that is grounded in scientifically respectable terms would bridge the gap between holistic education and mainstream education. In the beginning, the model would be an experiment involving a self-selected group of 10-20 schools to recognize their organizational strengths as nurturing schools, build their nurturing capacity, and create a branded third party system that can become independent and eventually be recognized as a legitimate accrediting body. 

In the mid-term the model would provide schools that aspire to holism a method of verifying the legitimacy of their efforts and begin to build a political foundation for protecting the features of holistic schools that are threatened by the emphasis on traditional academic outcomes in publicly funded schools. 

In the long-term the holistic accreditation system may become a full parallel to the traditional academic accreditation systems or it may be integrated into the traditional accreditation system.

As currently envisioned, there is no inherent incompatibility between holistic and traditional schooling.

The problem arises when academics are given precedence over holism.

When academic performance is used as a mechanism of behavioral control, then that commitment can cause more psychologically harmful controlling behaviors to arise.

If the goals of holism are recognized as necessary prerequisites to academic goals, then the incompatibility will not arise, or can be effectively corrected.

This accreditation model approach is the most likely way that holistic schools can have a far-reaching systemic effect on the way that mainstream schooling operates. 

The dominant non-state players in the accreditation field are the various regional Associations of Independent Schools and AdvancED, an accreditation conglomerate.

The regional independent school associations are explicitly focused on academics with some minor acknowledgement that social/emotional skills are necessary.

AdvancED is the dominant accreditation organization overall and they are also focused primarily on academics. Holism has no role in any of the existing accreditation systems.

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4. How will the Schools of Conscience school accreditation model differ from other models?

The Schools of Conscience accreditation model will be unique because of the holistic conceptual framework upon which it will be developed.

The consistent emphasis on how systems are embodied by and embedded in other systems in this framework is the essence of a holistic approach.

The conceptual framework provides a skeleton that will lend coherence to the diverse array of practices that flesh out the actual operations of each school.

The conceptual framework has three core components. 

  1. Quality of Individual Experiences 
    An examination of how the individuals within the school experience their activities there.

    The data gathered about individual experiences will use established scientifically respected frameworks regarding motivation and engagement. 

    Patterns of motivation and engagement will serve as the foundation of the accreditation decision. The maintenance of intrinsic motivation and/or high levels of engagement will be required along with indications of positive school climate.

    If less than ideal conditions are observed in the motivation and engagement data then activities that regularly occur in the school will be viewed critically from three important perspectives: the learning agent (e.g. students, teachers, & principals) , the learning catalyst (e.g. teachers & principals), and the learning context (e.g. principals & societal stakeholders). 

  2. Commitment to Sustainability
    The well-established and successful ecological sustainability model, the Natural Step, is based on the fact that global ecological reality inherently imposes four very specific limitations that define sustainability.

    The sustainability component of our accreditation model is a holistic expansion of the Natural Step.

    Sustainability is determined by the behaviors of multiple levels of systems that are both embodied by and embedded in other systems.

    For instance, an organization behaves through the actions of individuals even as the organization is part of society and the individual is made up of cells.

    All the behaviors at the cellular, individual, organizational, and societal levels interact with the ecological level described in the Natural Step.

    Schools will be required to develop transparent communications with their stakeholders regarding how they address the various levels of sustainability. 

  3. Organizational Activism
    A systematic design approach to articulating how the school intends to fulfill their role as a part of the larger education system in which it is embedded. 

    Schools must both fit into and positively affect the society in which they are embedded. 

    The Schools of Conscience accreditation system will require accredited schools to participate in the policy conversations at state, federal, and global levels that shape the limitations on how they can and should operate. 

    Currently that conversation effectively excludes holism, but that can and should change. 

    It will only change if schools take responsibility for changing it and cooperate on actions to make the change happen..

The school accreditation model will be developed in cooperation with a core group of schools that are members of Schools of Conscience and with additional financial support from other organizations, including other schools that want to invest in K-12 educational innovation that takes holism seriously. 

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